Autumn Ashes

Disclaimer: When we started this line over three years ago, we had no idea we’d soon enough be in a real pandemic. This series is meant as a fun, silly, lighthearted take on the traditional zombie apocalypse narrative. Enjoy! And make sure you're caught up on the story, or at least have read the chapter before this one, Candied Apple!

Scent Notes: Smoky firewood, fresh figs and ripe kumquats, pepper and ginger, a whiff of coal.

The whole camp was in mourning. The sudden, tragic death of Kevin permeated the air of the camp, and everyone was depressed. For weeks, they found bits of helicopter wreckage. She took to picking them up and throwing them over the ravine, screaming from the top of her lungs. All of her rage seemed to be on the surface, and she could hardly interact with Mallory or Nabil without feeling her blood boiling at the injustice and terror that they couldn’t get away from. Time passed; the weather turned colder and colder. The days grew ever-shorter, and the darkness sometimes felt like it might carry her away, somewhere dark, deep, and unreachable. But when the sun was shining, when she surveyed the life she’d managed to carve out during an actual zombie apocalypse, she tried to move forward. The ashes of Autumn were everywhere, but life carried on. Somehow.

Her temporary moment of clarity felt like an impossibility, staring down what she now had to face. Sure, they had plenty of supplies for ZomBeGone, and Nabil was an incredible doctor. There was no actual current threat of zombies taking over, but it was never far from her mind, either. The stress of constantly worrying about what to do, how to carry on, how to support all of the people in the camp hadn’t lifted within the last few weeks; if anything, it felt darker and harder now that the former zombies seemed to be almost human again. Some of them, at least. Something about Kevin’s death had awoken a humane response in the hoard, and most of them seemed to become less zombie-like as the days progressed, though some did not, and remained in their not-zombie, not-human stasis. Nabil took great care of the ones that were progressing, testing their vitals, seeing if they understood speech, trying out different foods to see if they could eat, watching them sleep. It truly was miraculous to see that, really, it was possible to reverse zombification with the right medicine and care. But she wasn’t a fool; she knew it was impossible to try and turn every single zombie back into a human. She couldn’t go out into the world by herself and fix all the people who had already been turned by the pumpkin spice. They had also lost their helicopter, meaning their runs for supplies would now take much longer and be far more dangerous, though it was always possible one might miraculously appear. You never knew what would happen in the apocalypse, after all. 

Today, when she woke up, curled snugly next to Mallory, she realized she could see her breath. It was still fall, but winter was closing in. Her first thought? “We need more firewood.” So she untangled herself from Mallory, found the warmest coat in their communal clothing pile, grabbed the hatchet that was never far from her grasp, and slipped out into the dawn to start chopping wood. She covered Mallory with a second blanket to make up for the body heat she was taking with her. Mallory grumbled in her sleep and rolled over as she exited their tent, trying to keep the cold air from rushing in further. She greeted the people keeping watch on the perimeter of the camp with a hatchet wave (which they, thankfully, understood was not a weird threat but her version of saying, “Good morning” from afar, and the signal that she was going to chop more firewood). She went and stood by the fire, warming her bones and hoping there was some instant coffee and hot water ready, when she was startled by approaching footsteps. “Need some coffee?” Nabil asked, handing her a cup. “I just made some; I haven’t been to bed yet but as the day is starting I figured I’d stay awake until it warms up a bit and get a nap in then.” She sipped gratefully, feeling it warm her and wake her up. “Why haven’t you been to sleep?” she asked. “Did something happen? We don’t keep you on watch because you’re our doctor and we need you rested and alert, you know.” She gave him a wink, and he gave a tiny smile in return before yawning. “Sorry. I was up with some of our former zombies, trying to see if they’ve made progress. It’s the most fascinating thing. I think, within the next few days, some of them are going to be fully restored. They aren’t speaking recognizable English, but they clearly understand me and are attempting to communicate. Something about the transformation impacts the parts of the brain that let us understand and speak language. Truly, truly fascinating. That’s why you always see zombies just grunting or growling or yelling in horror movies. They seem to have gotten that part right, at least.” He took a sip of coffee and looked into her eyes. “I’m just trying to make them all human again. ZomBeGone isn’t making a difference anymore; they’re well past that point. I do fear, however, that once they’re able to speak and feel and eat like us again, we’re going to have problems here at the camp.” She held his gaze, her mind turning over horrible possibilities, but Nabil was talking about more practical matters. “I am afraid that our supplies will go much, much faster with this many people,” he said slowly. “I don’t think we have enough tents to house them, or enough food to feed them and us, or spare blankets and clothes with winter approaching.” She took a sip of her coffee and nodded. “I know. I’m worried about how we’ll survive the winter. We were set for a while with all the supplies Kevin….” Her voice stopped abruptly and she swallowed hard; even mentioning him casually was still so painful. She knew it would hurt less, eventually, but she wasn’t there yet. “You know what you need?” Nabil asked. “Oh, I can think of a lot of things, but what’s your suggestion?” she replied before chugging down the rest of the coffee, suddenly determined to get out of this conversation. “You need some fresh fruit and a good laugh,” Nabil said. “Remember how we had blood oranges out of nowhere? I might have stumbled upon fresh fruit that shouldn’t be growing here, in this climate, but here we are. Weird things happen when zombies roam the earth, I guess,” he said with a smile. “Or, weird things happen if you’re in a zombie apocalypse story that’s being used to sell perfume. What kind of company would do that? Fruit and smoke does sound like a great scent combination, though. Someone should do that.” She smiled at the thought. “Fresh fruit sounds incredible, and I trust that you found some delicious new options that just sprouted nearby. I kind of wish I had some perfume right now. I think we could all use some; bathing in the river only does so much. But how do we tackle the laughter problem?” Nabil smiled. “You just leave that to me. Now go chop that firewood; I’m going to try and get a nap in.” He gave her a salute and walked off with his coffee mug. She waved him off, puzzled, but decided that, yes, the physical activity of chopping wood would be very good for her. So she set off for the woods, rubbing her hands together for warmth.

The sun was fully up now, and the ground crunched beneath her feet as the grass and leaves had frozen overnight. She found the pile of large branches and various bits of trees that they’d gathered recently, safe under a tarp but unfortunately a bit damp. Ah, well, any wood in an apocalypse, she thought to herself, before getting down to business chopping them up. It was hard, sweaty, aching work, and the “thunks” of her hatchet splitting wood apart could be heard throughout the campsite and into the surrounding woods. She stopped every few hits to make sure no zombies were coming, and thankfully, none came. But she found that a bit odd, truth be told. It had been almost too long since they’d had even one rogue zombie make its way into the camp. Everything just felt a bit … off. She stopped, shook her shoulders, surveyed her perimeter, and saw a figure walking towards her from the denser part of the woods, something dangling from their hand. She picked up the hatchet, always vigilant, watching, waiting, until she realized she recognized the sway of those hips. Two seconds later it was confirmed: it was just Mallory, clearly looking for her. “Hey!” Mallory yelled, jogging closer to her. The odd thing in her hand was a basket that she could see was absolutely overflowing with fruit. Mallory saw her eyeing the basket, grabbed a fruit, and threw it at her. She caught it, and was shocked to see … a kumquat? How in the world…. 

“I KNOW!” Mallory said, reading her mind. “I got up shortly after you because I was cold, and I almost walked straight into Nabil. We talked for a minute and he told me about all this exotic fruit he found and I just couldn’t stop myself! It doesn’t make any sense; none of this fruit grows here. I found kumquats and figs; there might be more!  It shouldn’t be here, but it is! I’m going back to get more baskets because all the trees are just bursting. Come with me!” Mallory was so excited; her eyes were shining brighter than she’d seen in quite some time. “Okay babe,” she said. “Help me bring some of this wood to the site and I’ll help you pick more fruit.” She popped the kumquat into her mouth, shocked at how perfectly juicy, tart, citrusy, and delicious it was. Mallory wiggled her eyebrows at her. “Aren’t they incredible? I feel like this is just the thing to perk everyone up!” She nodded, and started gathering up her chopped firewood into the tarp that had covered the branches. Mallory joined her, and in short order they were dragging the tarp full of kindling and firewood logs into the encampment. The air around them was a gorgeous blend of the fresh fruit and freshly chopped firewood; “Wow, this WOULD make a great scent,” she thought. Their arrival was greeted by several people who were digging through the basket of kumquats and figs, absolutely overjoyed at the bounty of fresh fruit. She looked around but didn’t see Nabil; he must finally be sleeping. They left that basket, grabbed whatever other baskets/bags they could find, and the two of them set off hand-in-hand to go get more of the delicious fruits. 

They headed back into the woods, holding hands, practically skipping with delight. “This is the best I’ve felt since, you know,” Mallory said, her tone dropping slightly. “I’m just so glad these magic trees are here. We’re so lucky!” Mallory shot her a brilliant smile, only the tiniest bit of sadness showing through in her eyes. “I know; I thought I was getting better, but I just feel … weird, still. We still have tons of not-zombie/not-humans in the camp, winter is setting in even faster than last year, and I just feel like something is wrong. There hasn’t been an attack in weeks. We saw something truly horrific and nothing has been the same since. It’s just so odd, even for a zombie apocalypse, y’know?” She looked over at Mallory, who was biting her lower lip. “I know what you mean,” Mallory said. “Things have just felt odd. I’m getting nervous about how we’re going to make it through the winter at all, but I am trying to look at this abundance of fruit as a good sign. It shouldn’t be here; it shouldn’t be thriving; it’s not in season; yet, here it is, just for us to enjoy. Maybe things aren’t always as terrible as they seem or as it feels right now. Maybe brighter times are ahead. Maybe….” Before she could finish, a lone zombie scrambled out from a tree into their path. She sprang into action, not even thinking, and soon enough, a headless zombie was lying in the path to the fruit trees, leaking thick, orange pumpkin spice blood into the earth. Mallory laughed. “Look! A zombie attack! Does that make you feel any better?” She smiled at Mallory while wiping her hatchet on the grass. “Weirdly, it does.” She smiled and took Mallory’s hand in hers again. “Let’s go pick this fruit and have a beautiful day. Maybe there is some hope on the horizon.” So together they walked to the fruit trees that shouldn’t exist, enjoying the simple pleasure of being with the person they love, harvesting fresh food, and continuing to survive in spite of it all.

Scent Notes: Smoky firewood, fresh figs and ripe kumquats, pepper and ginger, a whiff of coal.